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This special edition of our Let’s Tune In column explores the reasons behind the escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine in late February 2022.
Severals are the harbingers of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and such indicators are far from recent. In particular, this analysis highlights the ‘NATO question’ – a long-standing matter of contention in Russo-Atlantic relations, Ukraine’s internal political crisis, and the influence of global superpowers in the geopolitical matrix on these tensions.
NATO and Urkaine
In 2008 in Bucarest, NATO opened up to Ukraine and Georgia the possibility to enter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, notwithstanding Russia outlined as NATO had given assurances to Gorbachev the Organization would have not expanded to the east of Germany – a decision that has raised problems at the Russian borders.
The relationship between NATO, the USA, and Russia has been complex for years. After the escalation of tensions in 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO enhanced its presence in the Black Sea given Russia’s reportedly aggressive policy over territorial and maritime control. Proof thereof is its military exercises in March and in July, the last one co-hosted by Ukraine and the USA that brought over 2,000 forces and 30 ships in the Black Sea.
Unbeknownst to many, exploiting the diversion of international attention towards the migration crisis between Belarus and Poland and the European shortage of natural gas, starting from October 2021 Russia has been building up a military presence close to the Ukraine borders, an army that in November had become bigger than the army used to invade several parts of Ukraine in 2014.
On December 7th, 2021, a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden took place in which they discussed several issues including the situation at Ukraine’s borders, where nearly one-hundred thousand soldiers were stationed at the time of the summit. During the meeting, the presidents did not find a solution to this problem but left the video call with the certainty that they would solve the problem, as their joint declaration indicated.
Not a week had passed when Russia drafted two documents delivered to the USA and NATO, where the Federation explained what had to be done to end tensions in Ukraine and on Europe’s eastern borders. In particular, the Federation’s requests were met with contention, especially on Articles 4 and 6 of the Russia-NATO Proposal.
Article 4 reads:
“The Russian Federation and all the Parties that were member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as of 27 May 1997, respectively, shall not deploy military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other States in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of 27 May 1997. With the consent of all the Parties, such deployments can take place in exceptional cases to eliminate a threat to the security of one or more Parties”.
Article 6 instead states that:
“All member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commit themselves to refrain from any further enlargement of NATO, including the accession of Ukraine as well as other States”.
Russian demands de facto implied:
- a step back from NATO in the countries that were not members before 1997;
- the discontinuation of military exercises at their borders and nuclear weapons next to Russia’s backyard;
- a step back from Ukraine due not only to security concerns related to geographical proximity between NATO stations and Russia’s heartlands, but also nationalistic and cultural claims that Ukrainians and Russians belong to the same people, as indicated by Putin’s State of the Union speeches.
Russia had explained also that the NATO-Russia Proposal would only be valid if considered in toto, unamended. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, replied to this proposal that NATO could not deny its right to protect and to defend all allies and underlined that every country should have the right to choose its path.
Following the failure to reach an agreement in repeated meetings with Russian officials, Europe and the USA working on further sanctions to be applied to Russia and Biden said that he could consider personal sanctions for Putin if Russia were to invade Ukraine. The sanctions to a head of state are not normal administration but there are notable precedents in history. Examples include Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. This action would have not allowed Putin to travel to Geneva, meet the head of states and world leaders in Moscow, or store his assets in foreign financial institutions.
Ukraine’s Own Crisis
In the meantime, Ukraine faced and overcame an internal crisis due to the political persecution of its former President Poroshenko for alleged “treason.” Petro Poroshenko came back to his country to face his charges in a very contentious case built for alleged support to financing Russian-back separatists in the Lugansk region during his presidency via coal sales. Its pre-trial detention was however overruled by a Kyiv court, which decided that:
“The court ruled to choose personal recognizance as a measure of restraint for Petro Oleksiyovych Poroshenko.”
At the end of January 2022, Ukraine was on the verge of a Russian invasion. Russia was undergoing military exercises with Belarus at Ukrainian borders and preparing military exercises with China and Iran in several parts of the world. Ukraine, on the other hand, was military-backed by numerous countries including the UK and the USA.
In a wave of anti-Russian solidarity came the aid from other former USSR countries (such as some Baltic states) which sent U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine after the US authorization. In parallel, EU states have cohesively helped Ukraine with investments and aid, although its eastern neighbor was never officially proposed to become it has never proposed Ukraine to become part of the Union due to its geopolitical position. Ultimately, the Union reiterated its position as a reliable economic partner but not an equally reliable grantor of security in the continent.
USA, Russia, Europe, and China
Several embassies in Ukraine have been gradually evacuated due to the fact that Russia was already prepared to invade at the end of January and the escalation of tensions that unfolded in the past days was expected to happen at any time.
In the global chessboard of support for either side, China is reportedly supporting the Russian cause. Although China does not appreciate the interference in matters of domestic policy, China and Russia present common economic interests and common international aspirations. Especially since the end of Donald J. Trump’s presidency of the United States, Sino-Russian relations have been developing in forms of both allyship and partnership. The strong position of US President Joe Biden against authoritarian regimes worldwide further pushed Russia and China on the same side of the geopolitical chessboard as allies, while the Chinese aid to Russia following EU’s sanctions against the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 strengthened their economic ties and partnership.
In Russia, little attention has been paid to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis per see, while the civil society has been acquainted with the “Russian proposal” to NATO via mainstream media. The solution to the early stage of the crisis, according to several experts, could have been to accept a new West-oriented Ukraine with increased Russian influence and economic interests.
The Russian Invasion
The Russian invasion started after a vocal statement made by the Russian president Vladimir Putin, in which he declared that Russia would engage in a “special military operation” in Ukraine where it will fight the “Nazi” government of “drug-addicts” of Kyiv – citing instances of abuses and crimes of “genocide” against the Separatist zones of Lugansk and Donetsk as casus belli. The hostilities started on the 24th of February with air raids in all the major cities of the country accompanied by a large-scale invasion from the Belarus and Russian borders.
The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he is in constant contact with the leaders of partner countries and international organizations. Russia has already begun to receive the first from a large package of sanctions, the most powerful in the world’s history. The stance of NATO and Atlantic allies is to support Ukraine’s stance against surrender to the Russian military.
Zelensky nonetheless has been clear on the fact that Ukraine can not win with Russia alone, while he has condemned the absence of an interventionist stance of global powers in support of the Ukrainian soldiers. The hope of sanction-imposing countries is that the economic restrictions on the Russian economy will make the invasion and occupation of Ukraine financially non-viable.
This is an evolving story. Last updated on 26/02/2022 at 1413 GMT.